A Vengeful People
The Hebrew Bible is often said to be a book of violence and vengeance. The question is then asked as to how an attitude of vengeance can fit with an ethic of love? This post will look at two specific texts which helpfully crystallise what for some people seems to be genuine problem. One of these texts is from the torah, the other is poetic and from the Writings:
“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. . .”
Exodus 21:22‒25 (NIV)
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8‒9 (NIV)
We shall look at each of these texts in turn. The aim of this short post is to offer a pointer as to how these texts might not be so out of kilter with our modern sensibilities as is often supposed.
Seeing beyond an eye-for-an-eye
The passage from Exodus 21 is not unique within the Hebrew Bible. Both Leviticus 24:18‒20 and Deuteronomy 19:21 contain the same retaliatory idea. This principle is often termed the lex talionis which literally means law of retaliation. There is no doubting the question that this principle gives rise to. Many of the concerns, however, can quickly be alleviated by considering the context of this legal literature:
- At this time in the Ancient Near-East the sorts of issues for which this law was intended could give rise to civil strife because of disproportionate retaliation. In this way some people recognise the lex talionis as limiting the meeting out of justice, i.e. focusing on like-for-like rather than escalation into a feud.
- Also in this period, as in so many others, the richer more powerful classes could often escape justice. In other legal codes, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, similar laws are aimed at protecting those of inferior social standing . That this legislation might especially relate to slaves and their masters in the torah is seen by the content of Exodus 21:26‒27 which explains that a slave must be set free if they lose an eye or a tooth.
- One of the dynamics of law in the Hebrew Bible is that like all law it is subject to change. We would not see UK law of, say, 1949 being a once for all finished law. Neither should what we have preserved in the torah be seen as a singular finished article.
None of these three points deals with all the questions we might have about the lex talionis and the ethic of love. The goal has been to show that the text is not either as stark or as simple as it first appears. As Beaton  says:
. . . regardless of which interpretation one finds most convincing, these explanations are unified by their endorsement of the principle of proportionality: the talion was about restraint, not vengeance.
On Babies and Rocks
Beatitudes are sometimes referred to as beautiful attitudes. Notwithstanding this unhelpful definition, no one can rightly claim that wanting real babies to be dashed against actual rocks is anything like a beautiful attitude. So why does such an ugly beatitude have a place in the Hebrew Bible?
The context of Psalm 137 is made very clear in its opening verses. These words were made famous by Boney M.’s song Rivers of Babylon. At this time, as we saw in ‘E is for Exile’ and ‘L is for Lamentations’, the nation of Judah had been devastated by war, Jerusalem had been sacked and the people deported into Exile. Remembering this context and noting that Psalm 137 is poetry can go some way to lessening the shock of these words. This is not a legal text which says how justice should be done, although given the fate of many women and children in Jerusalem it might appear to echo a crude wish for the application of a lex talionis. But we still have a big question: why is it appropriate to use poetry and song to articulate vengeance?
A good starting point is to observe that articulating emotion in poetry and song is an incredibly natural thing to do. At the same time we can observe that the participation in poetry and song, whether reading, reciting, hearing or singing, does not have to result in carrying out violence or even condoning it in a rational conversation. The psalms of the Hebrew Bible often deal with emotion and in many cases this can be negative emotion such as a desire for vengeance. Interestingly the language used; whilst unguarded in its frankness tends to leave the matter with God. Perhaps the need for candour with God and the need to entrust our foes to him are an emotional necessity ahead of loving our neighbour?
- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1974.
- James Daniel Beaton. ‘Find Justice in Ancient Israelite Law: A Survey of the Legal System of the Israelites during the Post-Exodus, Pre-Exilic Period’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 41.2, 139‒158, 2016.